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There’s an old saying that all military generals dream that one day they will be out of a job (though the size of the MoD payroll rather belies that). At the moment, the same goes for government ministers. All you’ll hear from any of them at the moment, whether Tory or Lib Dem, is how central government is at an end; it has ceased to be. It’s not for government to interfere in people’s lives any more. We’re rolling back the nanny state! The Wicked Witch is dead!
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg says the coalition has made good progress in rolling back many of the intrusive laws passed by Labour. However, he told Henry Porter people were right to continue to be suspicious of central diktat. “You shouldn’t trust any government, actually, including this one. You should not trust government—full stop. The natural inclination is to hoard power and information.” [Guardian]
This is fine, and entirely in keeping with a libertarian agenda, except that it ignores the glaring fact that private providers don’t offer much opportunity for trust either. After all, what remains more successfully hidden than “commercially sensitive information”? At least government secrets sooner or later usually wind up leaked. Non-communication, a general tendency to hoard power and overall imperfection aren’t attributable to one particular system; rather, they can be put down to what the Tory Lord De Mauley once alarmingly referred to as “the involvement of humans”. To fear the all-encroaching state but not the negative potential of other forms of organisation seems irrational.

But all right, let’s go with it. No more central regulation; everything to be organised locally, from neighbourhood policing to sewerage budgets to youth care provision to street light maintenance to geriatric care to tax revenues. Leaving aside the fact that anyone who has ever used the phrase “postcode lottery” really has something to look forward to now, we’re all suddenly being asked to contribute meaningfully to the kind of decisions that we previously left to elected representatives.

I have said before, and I’m not being facetious when I do, that the bulk of the business of politics is overwhelmingly dull. That’s not even a criticism; it’s meant to be dull. You need a very specific kind of mind to want to crawl line by line through legislation about, say, building regulations, querying and testing it to see if it’s “fit for purpose”. Most of us do not have this kind of mind—just like most of us have no desire to spend a lifetime studying a particular species of ant—and we should be grateful that people exist who thrive on precisely that.

Perhaps you object to the very concept of building regulations as being too centralist, and would be happy if no such legislation existed. If so, I put it to you that you have not lived in a country where there was no building code. Either that or you’re Turkish and you still owe me for the mess you made of tiling my bathroom, you clown.

If we’re going to decentralise services to this extreme degree, though, let’s have the courage to see it through to its conclusion. We don’t just want care provision veering wildly from parish to parish—we want to get our hands on defence. Centralisation in the military has held us back for too long. It’s not the government’s place to dictate military policy. Each local authority its own division and weapons! Unleash the little platoons! Let’s see Newcastle and Sunderland sort it out once and for all!

No, obviously not. That’s a ridiculous extrapolation, and just the kind of unhelpful commentary that the prime minister has been chiding the big society’s critics for, although his demand that opponents “stop sniping” is a bit rich coming from a man who’s leading an all-out artillery assault. In fact the prime minister seems unnecessarily anxious about all this, given that he really can’t lose. If by some miracle the country comes through the next few years relatively unscathed, he can personally take the credit. If, however, as seems likely, the coalition ends up scathing us quite a lot, Cameron can claim that it only goes to show that governments always make bad decisions, the very idea of the centralised state is discredited and he was right all along.

His complaint, though, is that his vision is constantly being misrepresented. Far from simply being a cover story for massive cuts in government spending, he points out, it’s actually social reform that entirely relies on massive cuts in government spending—a completely different proposition.

Unfortunately, his claims that this is a positive and constructive initiative are being steadily undermined by the Department for Work and Pensions. It has had to issue correction after correction to Parliament about the dubious figures it has been issuing since the election[1], and has done nothing to counter the recent flurry of lying press coverage about disability benefit recipients. (“Millions” are fit to start work “straight away”, apparently, including people on dialysis and chemotherapy. Go on, get on your gurney and look for work![2]) Overall the DWP has proved to be very slightly less reliable and accurate in its reporting than Lord Haw-Haw, and all of it directed to the same end: demonstrating, at any cost, that the department’s massive cuts and reform will not wreak huge damage and that anyone receiving welfare, whether related to children or a disability, is basically on the rob.

Such insistent demonisation seems designed to persuade the public to accept the full extent of the cuts when they come—or, at least, that part of the public not in any way affected by them. Anyone who has seen the alleviating effects of disability payments is a lost cause as far as the coalition is concerned, but statistically there aren’t many of them. The resentful many are a much more satisfying crowd to play to.

So Cameron’s departments are pressing ahead with their cuts, often (a) on spurious figures, (b) with no regard to their consequences[3] or even, as Ben Goldacre amply demonstrates here, (c) against the evidence. But the prime minister is still insisting to everyone around him that this is a moral crusade for the nation’s benefit. One explanation more than any other suggests a plausible reason for this:
I fear here that Cameron has fallen victim to the availability heuristic. He looked at his own family and acquaintances and saw many social entrepreneurs, millionaire philanthropists and rich men’s wives looking for a role, and forgot that these were not typical of the country. [Liberal Conspiracy]
From his perspective, then, he’s in The Life of Brian, insisting to the crowd that “You’re all individuals!”, while all we do is stay put and shout back, “Yes! We are all individuals! Now why are you shutting our fucking youth centre?” (Technically they’re not shutting anything, of course, they’re just making it impossible for them to remain open—another fine distinction that’s in danger of being lost on the rest of us.)

Plainly, it’s not as if nothing in the country needed improving, while the previous administration's keenness to explore how far the state could intrude into its citizens’ business will have helped persuade a lot of people that the state needed a sharp lesson in learning its place. But I suggest that a slash-and-burn policy implemented by millionaire dilettantes was perhaps not the ideal route forward.

Cameron may have his eyes lifted to volunteer heaven but the rest of us are going to have to keep trudging around in a distinctly earthly corporate swamp. This disconnect between his ideals and reality can be seen in the government's mixed messages about charities. They are the jewel in society’s crown and the way forward, apart from the large ones that get state handouts, even if they’re actually being paid to carry out particular local tasks for the state. They shouldn't need state support, says the coalition, at the same time as it says it wants them to take on even more vital functions than they already do. A lot of the social work in Camden and Tower Hamlets, for example, is contracted out by the local authority to the NSPCC. Slashing funding to both the NSPCC and the local authority, and insinuating that both are pathetic for needing state funds into the bargain, is precisely the kind of thing I might have suggested before the last election that the Tories were itching to do when they took power—as I’ve mentioned before, Lord Flight had the good grace to warn us of this in 2006—but it would likely have been dismissed as being a ridiculous and ignorant lampoon of Tory policy. It turns out the Tories are perfectly able to provide that themselves.

(Incidentally, the cure that the coalition suggests for charities like the NSPCC that have become too dependent on government money is simply to get back into the habit of raising their own funds. Charities, it turns out, aren’t already active enough[4], and need to up their fundraising game. Essentially, the big society is a chugger's charter.)

There has always been a stark division between the people who, if they saw someone crawling out of the desert, would rush to give them water, and those who would see it as an exciting opportunity to sell them some liquid. Now David Cameron is showing us a third way—do neither but wait for water to materialise from somewhere else, while lecturing them on why they shouldn't have been in the desert in the first place.[5]

[1] Like this one.  Back

[2] Lord Freud: In my view, people who are autistic could benefit more than virtually anyone else from the package of measures in the work programme that we are introducing. These are people who can work if they are helped to do so. [Hansard]

I worked with special needs young adults for a while when I was younger. Pete was 18 and so powerfully autistic that he could scarcely communicate. He never made eye contact, never spoke a word and was never seen to read or write. He would allow himself to be led outside by the hand for a walk, and if there was any music playing he would smile to himself and sway gently from side to side with his eyes closed. That was pretty much the extent of his contact with the outside world. I would love very much to watch Lord Freud explaining to Pete how much Pete wanted to work, and how it was only Pete’s disability living allowance holding Pete back. Actually, Pete would probably do quite well as a fact-checker for the DWP.  Back

[3] Some of the defence cuts are actually very sensible, but the cancelling of the Nimrod planes strongly suggests that this was more by luck than judgment. Powerful spy planes with vast coverage allow a more sparing deployment of forces and use of weapons; getting rid of them leaves us dangerously underequipped. The Tories are very hot on renewing the UK’s “military convenant” with its troops, but that seems like a very hollow exercise if at the same time you're getting rid of their ability to see the enemy coming. "We really do appreciate everything you chaps—ah, sorry, you probably should have ducked then. What address should we send the flowers to?"  Back

[4] I am certainly surprised to learn this, 14 months into my battle to fend off Oxfam’s urgent attentions after they got hold of my address. I like you as a friend, Oxfam, but nothing’s going to happen. Please stop sending me letters.  Back

[5] Also, spend your available resources on blocking all the nearby wells and then demanding that the aquifers flow harder. I mean, I could go on.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 16th, 2011 11:59 am (UTC)
General agreement, but I feel the need to comment on footnote [3].

Clearly the UK needs maritime patrol aircraft -- but the problems with the Nimrods are that (a) they're a radical re-working of an early 1950s airframe, (b) with serious enough limitations that the civilian sector ditched them as obsolete by the early 1970s, (c) where every single airframe was hand-built and customized so that they're all in effect prototypes, (d) with serious safety defects in the basic design, and (e) they'd been pushed three decades past their design life already. To which the proposed solution was to strip them down to skeletons and rebuild them like the Six Million Dollar Man -- new wings, new engines, new fly-by-wire controls!

It's like taking WW2-vintage Spitfires and fitting them with turboprop engines and air-to-air missiles and an all-new titanium coffee pot. You could do it if you threw enough money at the problem, but it's not entirely sane.

A better solution would have been to replace them with Airbus MPAs like France Germany and Italy, or buy the American Boeing P-8 Poseidon (based on Boeing 737-800s, replacing the US Navy's similarly ancient and decrepit fleet of P3 Orions). Either of these options could cost on the order of €250-350 per hull (compared to the Nimrod MR4 upgrade costing around £1Bn per hull), and would provide a more capacious and much less uncertain platform for all the whizzy electronics BAE Systems want to stuff into the airframe. Not to mention an airframe that is still in production as a civil airliner, thus permitting much cheaper non-specialist maintenance of engines and common structures.

Edited at 2011-02-16 12:00 pm (UTC)
Feb. 16th, 2011 12:45 pm (UTC)
This is interesting, and I'm happy to defer to your far greater knowledge of this field. One question, though: are any of the sensible suggestions for replacements that you mention being actively considered?
Feb. 16th, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
I have no idea what they're thinking. The MoD appears to have been victim of committee-think wrt. the Nimrods -- we've got them so we must of course keep repairing and upgrading them -- and not to have looked at the competition at all. (Possibly with encouragement from the main contractors for whom the Nimrod MR3-MR4 upgrade was a gravy train.) Then along comes the big swinging axe, wielded with enthusiasm but no great precision -- "this project is 100% over-budget and five years behind schedule! Kill it!" -- and no thought for the replacement.

I'd love to be proven wrong on this but I have a feeling that we'll have to lose an airliner off our coast before the message gets through to the coalition.

PS: The diagram halfway down this page (showing the bits of the MR4 that were to be built from scratch) ought to give you an idea of the scale of the "upgrade". George Washington's Axe, basically:
The most controversial decision taken by BAe in their study to determine the design for the MRA4, was to refurbish and reuse the fuselages of a number of old Nimrods for the new aircraft. To some extent this decision was driven by the desire of the MOD to procure a derivative of an existing aircraft. Although this decision probably enabled BAe to lower their overall bid for the contract, whilst probably also appearing to be really efficient to some Treasury bean-counter, in the event this decision created some unforseen problems and has contributed significantly to the long delay in the aircraft entering service. In retrospect, it would probably have been easier to have built completely new fuselages and although the original jigs were destroyed by BAe some time ago, reopening a complete assembly line would have enabled any number of aircraft to be built and the aircraft to be marketed and sold to other countries.

Edited at 2011-02-16 02:52 pm (UTC)
Feb. 16th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
Overall the DWP has proved to be very slightly less reliable and accurate in its reporting than Lord Haw-Haw, and all of it directed to the same end: demonstrating, at any cost, that the department’s massive cuts and reform will not wreak huge damage and that anyone receiving welfare, whether related to children or a disability, is basically on the rob.

What do you expect from a Government department whose ministers and SpAds include IDS, Freud, Chris Grayling, Philippa Stroud, and Susie Squire of the Taxpayers' Alliance; objectivity?

Magnificent post.
Feb. 16th, 2011 02:06 pm (UTC)
I love your vim and anger, I'm kind of smiling and gnashing my teeth at the same time. I may need dental work.
Feb. 16th, 2011 06:01 pm (UTC)
At least government secrets sooner or later usually wind up leaked. Non-communication, a general tendency to hoard power and overall imperfection aren’t attributable to one particular system; rather, they can be put down to what the Tory Lord De Mauley once alarmingly referred to as “the involvement of humans”. To fear the all-encroaching state but not the negative potential of other forms of organisation seems irrational.

Precisely. Part of the problem is the hi-jacking of the term "libertarian" to mean "anti-government" (which, as with so many incorrect uses of political labels, seems to have its origins in the USA) whereas libertarians, strictly speaking, should be against any kind of power structure that can impose its will on the individual.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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